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Concert review: Michaels long on hype, short on talent in Black Bear show

Let's be honest: Bret Michaels has never been a critical darling. Since he materialized out of a cloud of Aqua Net into existence 35 years ago with his band, glam-metallers Poison, it's been nonstop dissing, shade and mockery from the media.

Bret Michaels
Bret Michaels performs in Camden, N.J., in June 2009. (David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Let's be honest: Bret Michaels has never been a critical darling. Since he materialized out of a cloud of Aqua Net into existence 35 years ago with his band, glam-metallers Poison, it's been nonstop dissing, shade and mockery from the media.

That trend won't be stopping with this review.

Even though Poison sold millions of records in their heyday, they're not considered more than vapid entertainment by the people who write about music. Even respected musicians themselves don't claim Poison or Michaels as an influence. There's a reason for this: his music is bad, and he is a silly person.

Friday night at Black Bear Casino, Michaels brought his time-tested "Bandana Party Guy" persona to the stage in front of a sold-out crowd as the headliner of a bill that also included '80s staples Dokken and Lita Ford, as well as may-have-been-'80s-even-though-they-were-a-'90s-act Firehouse. While some of the show had its good moments, none of those moments included Bret Michaels.

Firehouse's brief opening set was the night's biggest surprise, in that the band evinced a kind of no-frills attitude, and lead singer C.J. Snare was in fine voice. He's retained most of his abilities as a vocalist, and their hits ("Don't Treat Me Bad," "Love of a Lifetime") were performed confidently. The non-single "Reach for the Sky" even had some unexpected heavy-metal guts to it. Snare was an engaging frontman, relaxed and smiling freely. By the end of their set, the crowd was in their pocket and revved up.

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The great Lita Ford was up next. Her performance was hit-or-miss, unfortunately. When she played the old Runaways song "Cherry Bomb," it was both a nod to her past and the best single song that any act played for the entire night. But when she performed the song "Lisa" without drums and bass as support, it shed too much light on the weaknesses of her voice. Perhaps it was just a bad night, but she recovered by the end for her big hit "Kiss Me Deadly."

Dokken was third on the docket, and their set was a big bummer. The band is touring without classic-lineup guitarist George Lynch, and his absence was painfully evident every time replacement Jon Levin took a tuneless, noisy, obnoxious solo with ten million notes in it and zero emotional content. Lynch was a shredder, but he still could write a solo you could sing.

Then there's Don Dokken, who basically looked like a big grumpy jerk all night. After he let his band play him onstage like he was Elvis, he came out in scarves and a wide-brimmed hat looking like Robert Wagner had raided Natalie Wood's closet and immediately started jabbing his fingers in the direction of his offstage techs. He just wasn't happy, and his set was short enough that there wasn't much else to take away beyond that and the fact that his voice is pretty well shot.

Finally, Bret Michaels. The main event. What is there to say about the guy other than he is a musician with very little discernible talent? His skills seem to be more in the cheerleading, being handsome, and partying departments. His set was only nine songs long (not counting the utterly pointless drum solo by whoever that guy back there was), and most of it was hideously bad.

The songs were performed at sluggish tempos that ruined whatever pep the original Poison versions boasted. Michaels sounded more like a hype man than a singer in the way he constantly jibber-jabbered through every song. He performed in front of giant photos of himself from 10 years ago. He lied about "Rock and Roll All Nite" by Kiss not being on the setlist, even though a quick trip to Setlist.fm shows that he plays it at every show. He did a version of "Sweet Home Alabama" that took the relative grace and nuance of the Lynyrd Skynyrd version and pounded it into the ground with his band's plodding ineptitude. He played both the bongos and the harmonica as poorly as possible. (Question: does he even know that the harmonica has more than the two notes that you get from breathing in and then out? Subquestion: does he know that calling what he was doing "playing the blues" is actually insulting to both a.) people with the blues and b.) actual blues musicians?)

Everything about Michaels is gaudy and classless. The show started with the PA cranking "Thunderstruck" and "Welcome to the Jungle," as if to draw energy from songs much greater than anything Michaels himself had ever written, and it ended with Michaels leaving the stage while his band remained to literally sell his guitar, hat, and bandana for him, auction-style. Seriously - the guitar player, after poorly reproducing the licks of poor guitarist C.C. DeVille, had to spend his post-show cooldown time going "350 once! 350 twice! 400!" and so on while he hawked Michaels' cheap Dean acoustic. You think AC/DC or Guns N' Roses would do something that gauche? Not ever. But this is Bret Michaels, after all.

It would've been hilarious, if it hadn't been so weird and sad. It's crazy to say, but maybe if it had been an actual Poison concert with your Rikki Rocketts and your C.C. DeVilles, maybe the music would've at least been fun and felt right. Not that the crowd would agree. They lapped it up, as one might imagine a crowd of Bret Michaels fans would do. (For example: at Nickelback concerts, Nickelback fans enjoy Nickelback doing Nickelback things. This is hard to understand if you like music that isn't terrible, but it's a fact nonetheless.) With Michaels blabbing endlessly about parties and shaking more hands than a presidential candidate, though, it just seemed like anti-music and anti-fun.

At least Lita played "Cherry Bomb."

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